Saturday, 10 July 2010

The Basque Country, Guernica

It was a case of déjà vu this morning because just like the day before it was once again overcast and wet. We decided however to stick with our original plan and drive the Basque Country coast road and visit the up-market seaside resort of San Sebastián, or Donostia in the Basque language; so after our final breakfast and a last game of pool we checked out and said goodbye promising to recommend the hotel and one day to return and then headed east.

As yesterday we had to use the motorway and make the circumnavigation of Bilbao once again and the road took us through the industrial and manufacturing zones of the city. All of this industry means that the Basque Autonomous Community is currently the wealthiest region in Spain, with gross domestic product being 40% higher than that of the European Union and 33.8% higher than Spain’s average. Industrial activities here were traditionally centered on steel and shipbuilding, mainly due to the rich iron ore resources around the city and the Estuary of Bilbao was the center of the Basque Country’s industrial revolution during the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

From Bilbao we continued east until the motorway turned into a toll road so we left it and started to drive north towards the coast passing on the way through the town of Guernica. I thought it important to visit this ordinary looking town because this was the scene of one of the defining moments in history and I thought we should be able to say that we had been there. Today Guernica is an unremarkable and not particular attractive town and this is because on April 26th 1937 it was almost completely destroyed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

Guernica was bombed at the invitation of General Franco and the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War because the Basque Country was a stronghold of the Republicans and because it was a symbol of Basque nationalism and the Basque people had generally aligned themselves to the Nationalists. It was of no real strategic military importance but Franco wanted to end the war in the north as quickly as possible and to do so he needed to take Bilbao and this act of aggression demonstrated his power. The raid was the first example of blanket bombing of civilian targets and it gave the Luftwaffe the opportunity to try out their new terror tactics which caused widespread destruction, two-thirds of the town was destroyed, and resulted in many civilian deaths. The bombing is the subject of a famous anti-war painting by Pablo Picasso and in 1999 the German Government formally apologised to the citizens of Guernica for the raid.
We didn’t stop in Guernica, to drive through was sufficient, and we carried on towards the coast and this seemed to take forever on a difficult road that ran parallel to the coastline but a few miles inland. This wouldn’t have mattered but the weather was poor and the scenery was disappointing compared to Cantabria. Finally we reached the coast fishing town of Lekeito, which is one of the most important on the Bay of Biscay and it would have been nice to stop and have a look around but it was absurdly busy and it was impossible to park. Today was Mother’s Day and for Basques an important day in the calendar when every son and daughter it seems takes their mother out to church and then to lunch and the streets and pavements were all busy and congested so we carried on. As we emerged from the town centre and followed the road around the bay we could see that it was an attractive town and it was a shame to miss it but we were certain there would be more ahead.

There were of course but these were all equally as busy so we had exactly the same problem in all of them and we had to drive through Ondarroa without stopping and then Deba. The scenery didn’t improve either because although we were now adjacent to the rocky coastline there was almost always a thick blanket of trees and shrubs separating the road from the cliff tops and the views and not only that the road was twisty and narrow so I had to pay careful attention which ruled out sight seeing anyway. At Deba we were weary of the tedious energy sapping drive so abandoned the coast road, rejoined the motorway, paid the toll fee and drove directly to San Sebastián.

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